The last print run

Today I printed the pages that I’ll attach to book board for the covers of the artist book. Now all of my printing is complete! I celebrated by riding my bike to the Ribersborgs Kallbudhus for a sauna and a swim in the Baltic – naked!

I had intended to print both vertical and horizontal lines on the covers, but the offset litho press didn’t cooperate with that plan. There’s still something wrong that’s preventing the ink from distributing properly on the drum and the paper. So the covers have either a horizontal or a vertical line. There are two covers because the bound book will be a dos-a-dos – two books in one, each with its own front cover. They will share a back cover.

So which is the title of the book? Actually, neither. The cover text is part of the narrative, and, like the interior text, is an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” The title of the book will be excerpted from the interior text: “Before the Beginning and After the End”.

Tomorrow I’ll be giving an artist talk at KKV, and on Friday I’ll pack everything up for the trip to Copenhagen and then back to St. Paul. The final steps for this artist book are to letterpress print a colophon, cut the book board and bind the books. I’ll start that process next week and post images. Although it’s exciting to see the final printed pages, there’s still suspense over whether or not the final piece will work as I’ve envisioned. I won’t know for sure until I’ve bound the first book of the edition.

It’s been an amazing experience to use the equipment in the well-equipped KKV Grafik workspace, share fika with colleagues, learn new printmaking techniques, get inspired by the work and processes of my colleagues, try to speak Swedish, navigate Malmö on foot and two wheels, swim in the Baltic. I’m filled with gratitude for the generosity of everyone at KKV Grafik and for my new friends.

Those green cookies are witches fingers, baked by Maggie Puckett, my fellow artist-in-residence. Maggie has completed her project of creating seed packets. She used the Vandercook 4 letterpress to print photopolymer plates of text and images she created in Chicago, prior to the residency. Here’s Maggie at the press:

The good, the bad and the ugly

Today I printed the second of 5 layers on one side of one of the two long sheets of paper in the artist book I’m creating. This print run was another experiment in seeing how true the original image would print.

For the drawing, I brushed onto the prepared strip of mylar the dense black ink created by mixing water with the round block of black something or other that Cecilia gave to me. Then I drew lines through the ink using a Q-tip. In the image below, the original drawing is on the right.

The plate that I made from the drawing is on the left. And the print, using a melon colored ink on the press, is in the middle.

Usually at this stage, where I’ve printed just one or two of the multiple layers, I experience a sinking feeling that the print won’t work out. Maybe I’ve chosen the wrong colors. Maybe the images are all wrong. Maybe the whole concept stinks. I’ve been at this long enough to know that this is the ugly stage, with the magic yet to happen. It’s entirely possible the end result will stink. And it’s just as likely that the final image will be better than I imagined.

Before the beginning

mono print by Wendy Fernstrum

When I applied in 2019 to this residency at KKV Grafik, the project I proposed was to print an artist book about the continuum of beginnings and endings, using letterpress, intaglio, and lithographic printing techniques. Here’s an excerpt from my application:

When does a beginning begin and an ending end? At what point does an ending become a beginning? My work explores this in-between space where identity is constantly shifting and all that seemed certain loses form.

Where does each of us begin and end? Are the drops of water in the ocean distinct? In my work I explore individuality within a united oneness, and the continuum of beginnings and endings. Although my diptychs present two distinct images – presence and absence, beginning and end – they transcend “either/or” to convey “and/both.”

During my residency I will continue to work with the line that appears in much of my work, representing the thread that connects us all and the unique strand that we are or the distinct mark we make in the world.

I had planned to use imagery from the diptychs I’d been working on. Since the images were one-of-a-kind, I needed to find a way to produce them as multiples. The image with the hand drawn lines could be produced using an intaglio printmaking method, where lines are carved into copper or plastic, the ink pushed into the grooves and then carefully wiped from the surface. When the paper is placed on the plate and run through the press, the paper pulls the ink out of the grooves.

The mono print image would be trickier to produce as a multiple. I anticipated lithography as an option.

As proposed, the artist book would include text with the images. The text would be from T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, “Four Quartets.” For example: Or say that the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there, before the beginning, and after the end. And all is always now.

I was excited about this proposed project when I applied, and when I learned that the residency would be postponed due to the Coronavirus, I sadly put the project on hold for another year. Then the residency was postponed a second time. When I received word earlier this year that the residency would actually happen, I started thinking about the project again, considering whether or not it still held enough interest to engage me. I had the option of working on an entirely different project. In the end, I decided this artist book still needed to be created, and I forged ahead with planning.

There is one significant difference between the book I’d imagined and the one I’m printing. I’d envisioned a folio or possibly individual sheets contained within a box. But, given the paradoxical nature of the text, that structure felt too organized, too straightforward. Borrowing a process from Maya Lin, I started the project not by making anything, but rather stating my intention for how I wanted the book to be experienced: I want the reader to lose certainty, to feel the vastness of uncertainty and experience the bewilderment of an open mind. To embrace unknowing and paradox. To shed limited beliefs and enter into infinite possibility.

I wondered: could the book be in the form of a mobius strip? That would work for an installation. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it function as a book.

After some experimenting, I landed my solution: dos-a-dos (two books in one) with spiral accordions. The spiral accordion requires a long strip of paper, which meant I had to adjust my approach to the images.

What, you might be wondering, is the title of the artist book? Good question. The book is still in an embryonic form, too soon to know what it wants to be called.

Kaborundum för slipning

grinding texture into film with stone and carborundum

Today, after consulting with my lithography friend Cecilia, I felt confident to begin working on the images for the artist book I’ll be printing at KKV Grafik in Malmö, Sweden. The first step was to prepare the mylar (a flexible plastic film), giving it a texture to hold the mark.

The mylar, cut to the right size for my project, lays on top of a stone. I then add water and carborundum (silicon carbide) and then push a smaller stone over the top, making a figure eight, for approximately 5 minutes.

The grinding makes a gorgeous sound and I felt myself swaying along with the figure eight. It’s a mesmerizing process I really enjoy, which is good because I have many pieces of plastic to prepare for this project. After the grinding is complete, I rinse the plastic, wash away the carborundum, and, because my strip is wider than the stone, start the process over again on the side not yet ground. Fortunately I don’t have to worry about grinding too much. 

When the plastic is fully prepared, I rinse and hang to dry. In this image, the prepared plastic is to the left and an unprepared piece is hanging to the right. 

Cecilia confirmed the litho plate picks up only dark marks when exposed. The marks I made that did not show up on the experimental plate were too light. Cecilia brought me something that looks like a hockey puck and that, when mixed with water and a brush, creates a dark black mark suitable for this lithographic method, where the artwork is exposed onto a metal plate.

I intended to ride a bicycle to the sea each day, but the timing hasn’t worked out. Finally, today, after a full day in the studio, I hopped on the bike and headed toward the Baltic Sea. I rode on bike paths the entire way, past a large, wooded park I plan to visit tomorrow, through neighborhoods, ending up on a path along the coastline. It took less than 30 minutes.

Many Swedes were swimming. But not me. My swimsuit is in Minnesota.

However, I’ve heard of a sauna here in Malmö where people jump into the Baltic, naked, to cool off from the sauna. Tempting…

Printmaking mecca

I’ve waited three years to experience the wonders at Konstnärernas Kollektiva Grafikverkstad (KKV) in Malmö, Sweden. Although I was awarded an artist residency via Women’s Studio Workshop in 2019, the coronavirus interfered with me traveling to Malmö until, finally, this year. Now. For an entire month I’ll be printing an artist book at KKV.

Yesterday a KKV member named Sofie picked up my fellow resident artist Maggie Puckett and me at the train station and delivered us to this amazing facility that has printmaking equipment I’d never dared to dream of. We met several members, all kind, generous, knowledgeable and friendly. They all speak impeccable English. I know 8 Swedish words.

Maggie and I each have personal workspaces and full access to all of the printmaking equipment and supplies. Here’s my workspace on day 1. Note how clean and uncluttered it is.

Today – day 2 – a KKV member named Cecilia kindly introduced me to the lithographic equipment, supplies and printing process. We prepared a piece of mylar (clear plastic film) for drawing and painting images that will be exposed onto an aluminum plate. To prepare the mylar, we applied water and carborundum, a steel-colored grit. 

When I learned lithographic printing decades ago at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, I drew and painted directly on the aluminum plate. This process that Cecilia demonstrated has some unexpected advantages, and I discovered I am lacking some needed supplies. Tomorrow I will use a bike provided by KKV to ride to an art supply store for brushes, gouache and perhaps India ink. Cecilia returns to KKV on Thursday to see my progress, which means I have a lot of work to do tomorrow. Today I worked on sketches, searching for the right images to print. I’m not satisfied yet, but getting closer. 

Here is Cecilia, talking with another KKV member. Note! (OBS! in Swedish) the tray with a coffee pot and sugar in the middle of the large table. Yesterday we experienced “fika,” a delightful coffee break with a small group of artists. Strong coffee, tasty biscuits, sweet new friends.